WJ Editorial

Barges Are Central To Salt Movements

As deep cold and snow continue to grip most of the country, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the importance of barge transportation to movements of road salt, an essential commodity. It is during winter that the barge industry, invisible most of the year, can suddenly come to the fore.

The severe winter of 2013-14 saw widespread spikes in demand for road salt, with state transportation officials complaining of shortages.  An online publication by the American Highway Users Alliance titled “Road Salt: A Primer on the Factors Affecting Supply and Demand,” noted that during that winter, “In many parts of the country, public works and transportation agencies nearly depleted their entire inventories of salt. Mid-season replenishment of supplies was challenged by a nationwide spike in demand compounded by the impact of winter weather on transportation supply networks. In the Midwest, freezing on rivers, canals, the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes forced costly and less efficient adjustments to the logistics chain.”

On its website, agricultural giant Cargill describes how it developed the barging of road salt into a profitable business.  Beginning in the 1940s, the company began searching for a “backhaul” cargo for tows coming back empty up the Mississippi River after discharging grain in New Orleans and other southern riverports. The company’s president at the time decided that road salt was worth a try. Its first load of Louisiana rock salt went north by barge in 1955. According to Cargill, it took a year to sell that first load. But the barged salt business grew, and “by 1960, Cargill management was convinced that rock salt fit Cargill’s business model as a large-volume commodity, with low-cost production and marketing.”

By 1962, the barged salt business was so successful that the company bought Belle Isle, a salt mine in the Louisiana bayous. The business continued to grow as Cargill bought other salt production facilities, mines and evaporated salt plants. Other suppliers and haulers took notice, and Morton Salt became the largest supplier of road salt after Cargill.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Today, highway salt is a staple barge cargo for some carriers as northern states build up stockpiles for the winter months.

A 2014 report drawn up for the state of New York concluded that the state “should investigate switching to an appropriately located domestic supplier [from the Chilean salt it was importing by ship] only if and when domestic barge transport becomes viable, as water transport of rock salt results in low transportation costs and carbon emissions.”

Exactly how much the barging of road salt saves states each year is subject to many factors, but it is undoubtedly substantial.

So the next time your state is able to respond quickly to snowfalls and ice storms with salt that clears roads and makes your commute and shopping trips possible even in the worst conditions, remember to thank the barge industry.